Greater Greater Washington

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Public Spaces


Add a piano to make your city square sing

Here's a fun way to add vitality to a public space: Outdoor pianos.

In 2009, Denver started adding public pianos along its busy mile-long downtown pedestrian mall. The pianos have become a popular and noticeable part of that city's public realm. 5 years later, they're still there, and people are still playing them.


Photo by voteprime on flickr.

Even if weather or careless use ruins them after one season, upright pianos aren't particularly expensive. It would be completely practical for DC to buy one or two per year and put them in squares or circles around the central city. Roll them out in spring, and pack them back up around Thanksgiving.

The idea could work great in Farragut Square or along the Georgetown waterfront.

A potentially bigger holdup might be getting the National Park Service to allow it.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Bicycling


12 ways our region could reform bicycling laws

The percentage of people riding bikes for transportation has been rising for the better part of two decades and there is every reason to believe that trend will continue. While engineers and traffic planners work to update the infrastructure and physical elements to encourage cycling, there is more that legislators can do to help too.


Photo by richardmasoner.

Some laws unnecessarily restrict safe cycling or where cyclists can ride or park. There are other laws that haven't caught up with technology and make the roads more dangerous for all. And there are still other laws that fail to protect vulnerable users or punish negligent drivers.

These laws should be rewritten. In many cases the change in laws will protect pedestrians and/or drivers as well. Below is a summery of recommended changes for the DC region that ran as part of a series on the Washcycle.

  1. Replace contributory negligence with comparative negligence. Maryland, Virginia and DC are three of only five "states" that use contributory negligence to establish damage awards in civil cases. Under this standard, if an injured road user was even 1% at fault for a crash with another road user they would be unable to recover damages unless they could prove that the other road user had the "last clear chance" to avoid the accident. Last clear chance involves proving four separate facts about the crash, all of which must be true, and can be difficult to prove.

    Every other jurisdiction uses some form of comparative negligence, which allows the injured party to recover some of their loses even if they were partially to blame. Contributory negligence is loved by big business and the insurance industry but it punishes victimswho are disproportionally pedestrians and cycliststwice, and should be changed.

  2. Close the negligent driving loophole. In Virginia and Maryland, it can be very difficult to convict a negligent driver with a crime. In both states recently, drivers who were over-driving their vision or not paying attention hit cyclists from behind and killed them. In one case the driver got a $313 ticket in the other the driver wasn't punished at all.

    The problem is that simple negligence is only a misdemeanor in Maryland and not a crime at all in Virginia. DC, on the other hand, has a law against "careless, reckless or negligent" driving that can result in 5 years in prison or a fine of up to $5000. Virginia and Maryland should close the loophole that allows negligent driving to be treated as "just an accident."

  3. Ban distracted driving. Distracted driving is quickly emerging as one of the major causes of road casualties. DC, Maryland and Virginia should move swiftly to make distracted driving (and that includes cycling) illegal.

    This means making texting while driving a primary offense in Virginia, where now it is a secondary offense, and increasing the fine from $20. It means banning the use of electronic devices while driving, including phones, computers, pagers and video games. Hands-free phones aren't significantly safer than hand-held phones and drivers should not be allowed to use those either. Finally, drivers should not be allowed to manipulate a GPS device while driving, though they can listen to directions.

  4. Treat cycling as transportation. Complete Streets is a doctrine requiring transportation agencies to build roadways that enable safe access for all users. Several states have adopted complete streets legislation or policies.

    Maryland adopted weak Complete Streets legislation in 2000, but it needs to be stronger. Virginia has a policy to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians, but it needs to be expanded. DC has no complete streets policy and should pass legislation to that effect.

    In addition, both DC and Maryland should emulate Virginia's ban on culs-de-sac, as they make for circuitous cycling on traffic sewers. M-NCPPC should end its policy of closing trails at night or when it snows and region-wide, critical trails should be cleared after a heavy snow. People still commute at those times.

  5. Leave a safe distance. Maryland and Virginia should follow DC's lead and pass a three feet minimum passing distance law, as well as a law making it illegal to open a car door unless it is safe to do so.
  6. Fix equipment requirements. Maryland, Virginia and DC require some equipment that isn't needed, fail to require one piece of valuable equipment and should try to standardize their light rules.

    The three have different laws about what kind of lights are required, but a common set of rules would help DC area cyclists. Combining the three state's laws could create a requirement for, at minimum, a front light visible 500 feet away attached to the bike, a rear light visible at the same distance attached to the bike or the rider and a rear reflector visible 100 feet away.

    While bells are nice, they shouldn't be required. I've never met a cyclist who thought their life, or anyone else's, was saved by a bell. And Maryland and Virginia should match DC's unique law allowing fixed gear bikes without a separate brake.

  7. Improve the return of recovered and impounded bikes. All three jurisdictions should create a process that maximizes the number of recovered stolen bikes and impounded bikes returned to owners. They should check all such bikes against the national bike registries. They should place photos of them on a recovered bike web site, as Arlington County does, and make it searchable by serial number.

    The serial number of bikes that are auctioned, donated or scrapped should be recorded in a searchable online database so that owners can recover the money or donation receipt for their bike. All jurisdictions should regularly report recovered bike statistics such as total number, number returned, number disposed, etc... as well as registries used to return them.

  8. Let cyclists decide where to ride. The uniform vehicle code, which most states use to define traffic laws, requires cyclists to ride "as closely as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway" and then lists several exceptions. While Denver has rewritten the law to make cyclists the judge of where in the lane a cyclist should ride, a more dramatic change is needed.

    It's not unreasonable to require cyclists to move right to accommodate faster traffic when safe and necessary, but attempting to codify this has led to frequent misinterpretation. A better rule would require riding right only when the lane is wide enough to allow a car to pass a bicycle safely in the same lane (safe), and when there is only one lane in that direction (necessary). Those cases are actually quite rare, so DC, MD and VA could be required to sign those roads as "Ride Right Roads." In addition, Maryland should repeal its law requiring cyclists to use bike lanes and shoulders when present.

  9. Let cyclists ride more than two abreast. Most places limit cyclists riding in a group from riding more than two abreast, and only when not being passed. Cyclists riding in an informal group ride often find themselves riding three or even four abreast, and under current law that's illegal. Instead the law should only require cyclists to stay in a single lane, except when legally changing lanes, and to move right to facilitate overtaking vehicles when judged safe and necessary.
  10. Improve access and parking. Building rules restricting bike commuters from bringing bikes inside as well as rules restricting bike parking in the public space make it unnecessarily difficult to park a bike. The region should adopt a rule similar to New York City's Bicycle Access to Buildings law which requires buildings to allow bicycles inside under certain circumstances. Cyclists should also be allowed to park their bikes to poles within bus zones or located within 25 feet of an intersection.
  11. Decriminalize safe cycling. Laws that were written for cars and drivers shouldn't necessarily be applied to bikes and cyclists. The Idaho stop law allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and stop lights as stop signs, which is what many cyclists do anyway. Since it's inception in Idaho, cycling has actually gotten safer.

    Another change should allow cyclists waiting at a light to move past the advanced stop line while the light is still red so as to stay in front of and in view of drivers. And finally, Maryland should review its law requiring cyclists to have both hands available for reaching the handlebars. DC and VA don't have such a ban and and this law could make it illegal for a cyclist to do something as simple as grab a water bottle.

  12. Allow more sidewalk cycling. Though sidewalk cycling is a critical tool to effective cycling, it's illegal in Prince William County, Alexandria and most of Maryland.

    While it might make sense to ban it in certain areas with heavy pedestrian traffic, such as DC's Central Business District, a county-wide ban is excessive and imprecise. These jurisdictions should make bans the exception and not the rule. Even in areas where its been decided that a ban makes sense, the law should allow riding on the sidewalk for the purpose of parking, as is done in Denver.

Transit


Transit pricing: Time to go "all you can eat"?

When you pay for transportation, whether it's for driving a private car or taking mass transit, there's a continuum of payment methods, with "pay-per-use" on one end of the scale, and "unlimited use" on the other.


Photo by gregula.

Does the choice of method matter? It should. People make choices about how they get around based on how much the next trip costs them. With unlimited use, the next trip is free. With pay per use, the next trip can cost a lot, because not only are you paying the cost of an additional trip, but you're paying a fraction of the fixed costs.

Most people pay per trip for transit in the Washington region. Meanwhile, many other transit agencies use an "all you can eat" model with their regular customers. In New York City, with the highest transit ridership in the nation, most riders buy weekly or monthly unlimited ride MetroCards. Unlimited ride holders don't think twice about hopping on the subway for almost any trip.

Metro sells about 35,000 unlimited weekly bus passes per week, and about an eighth as many rail passes. We should implement more convenient, reasonably priced monthly or weekly passes. WMATA's effort to integrate the existing passes with SmarTrip cards is a good start. However, the rail pass is still separate from the bus pass, and the rail pass only makes financial sense for those that ride the longest distances.

The difficulty with rail passes in Washington compared to other systems is distance-based fares. For other systems, the provider chooses a weekly price, which is typically 9-12 single rides. For distance-based fares, how should you choose the price to base it on? If you choose about 10 times the maximum fare, it's a terrible deal for most and you don't end up selling many passes. (This is almost what we do currently; it's $39.00 for a pass and the maximum fare is $4.50.) If you choose 10 times the minimum fare, it's expensive for the transit agency, and there's a lot of revenue loss compared to regular fares.

SmarTrip cards are smart enough to have customizable weekly passes. You could choose a fare level and pay ten times that amount per week automatically by subscription. All your rides that are less than that would be free, while any fare above that amount would be deducted from your account balance. This would have the effect of "pay for your commute and the rest is free". This is just like wireless phone service, where you pay for a certain amount of daytime (peak) minutes and get your nights and weekends for free. Right now WMATA has this policy, but there are only two potential fare levels, at around $26.40 for the cheaper "Short Rail" pass (equivalent to commuting downtown from approximately Bethesda), and $39.00 for the more expensive unlimited rail pass (which would be a good deal for anyone commuting downtown from White Flint or further). Someone who commutes a short distance isn't likely to buy one. Additionally, the passes are inconvenient, requiring purchase of a paper farecard, and for the short rail pass, carrying exitfare to make up the difference for each trip.

Image Courtesy GoBoulder
In addition to having reasonably priced unlimited passes, some transit agencies have taken the idea of unlimited pricing one step further. For example, the Denver area transit agency, RTD, sells an unlimited pass to an entire employer based on the number of employees and the distance from the city's downtown and transit centers. This is a form of insurance that spreads the cost out socially in order to provide a benefit. In this case, employers enjoy reduced parking costs and employees get free transit. The transit agency prices the passes to assure revenue neutrality. For a much lower price per employee than single pass purchases, everyone gets an unlimited yearly pass. The price per employee is lower (between $50 and $400 compared to $1800 for an annual pass) because the transit agency assumes some people will not use it.

Transit agencies still get the same amount of revenue, but instead of paying for each trip, the employees don't pay anything extra. This program reduced the number of parking spaces needed for Colorado UniversityUniversity of Colorado, and increased the number of employees taking public transit downtown. Boulder City staff were happy to talk to me about the program. Based on the materials they provided, the program seems like steroids for transit. People are many times more likely to use transit, even buses, when they have the pass. Neighborhoods are allowed to organize and buy passes for everyone on the block edit: RTD has placed a moratorium on new neighborhoods entering the program as they work to collect data from a soon-to-be-released smartcard. Even though the price of a ECO pass has risen dramatically (RTD has hiked the prices more than 50% since 2003), so has transit ridership and pass usage.

Unlimited passes are also an interesting idea for sporting or entertainment events. In that case, the stadium or ballpark would add a fee for every ticket, transferring the revenue to the transit agency. In exchange, the sporting event tickets would act as a day pass (perhaps after a certain time in the afternoon).

Having to pay for something creates a psychological obstacle to consuming more of it. In the case of transit, we want to lower those hurdles, especially off-peak where our transit systems have excess capacity, and more riders mean more revenue but not higher costs. "All you can eat" pricing does just that.

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